Don’t be a Chicken: Take the Bus in Central America

Going by Bus Has Advantages
Last week I went on a jolly up to Lancashire. Despite this being a wonderful part of England, even the Red Rose County has its thorn – it’s a wretched six-hour drive from my Devon home. So if, like me, you have the driving aptitude of a Norwegian salmon and the reactions of a three-toed sloth, you do what I do, you go by bus. Being stuck in one seat for several hours with little more to do than vie for central armrest supremacy might sound like purgatory to some, but it does provide endless opportunity to read, to scratch, and, best of all, to daydream. Before we pulled in to Bolton bus station, I was thinking back to my recent trip through Central America, in particular, the Latino equivalent of our Luxury Coach Network – the ever faithful Chicken Bus.

Setting the Scene
For the benefit of those yet to travel by Chicken bus, allow me to set the scene. These machines start their life as a U.S. school bus. After their North American shelf life has expired, they gain a whole new life south of the border. Possibly the ultimate in recycling, these veteran workhorses – that would have been put out to graze long ago – are now loyal servants to umpteen millions of Latin Americans. Goes to show that there’s still life in the old dogs.

Remodeling – from U.S. School Bus to Chicken Bus
After arrival in the land of machetes and banana palms, the vehicles undergo a complete facelift. Out with the old, in with the new. Their well known yellow exterior soon becomes history. The former ugly duckling emerges as a chrome fronted, hand painted, religious billboard on wheels. It’s like MTV’s "Pimp My Ride" on LSD-laced steroids.

Excessive chrome, pious stickers and garish paint schemes are definitely the new yellow and black. And that’s just the outside. The interior also undergoes the same radical transformation. Once inside, aesthetics take a back seat among the sacks of rice and beans, functionality now dictates design. Fore and aft spacing between seats remains unchanged, meaning leg space is still barely sufficient for small American children, but on one side, the bench seats are replaced, with slightly longer versions that now devour half of what used to be the aisle. Although still possible to negotiate this central walkway, now the width of Sellotape, it does pose the odd problem for ungainly westerners wielding 20 kilograms of badly-packed rucksack.

Having boarded the bus, swift passage must be made to secure an empty seat. They don’t stay empty for long. Unfortunately, quick manoeuvres plus small spaces equals skinned knees. You may not know this, but customised Chicken Bus seats remove more kneecaps in a single day than the IRA do in a full year. Bulkhead and ceiling spaces at the front of the bus don’t stay empty for long either. Unused space means room for stickers. Chicken Bus Jockeys simply love these things. In general, stickers consist of religious messages interspersed with Real Madrid and Barcelona FC Logos. God is the Light, Beckham is God, Jesus Loves Me and I Love Him, too.

As for the rest of the décor, simply throw in two overhead luggage racks to accommodate cardboard boxes containing shopping and the odd armadillo, a television in a welded cage (usually rendered defunct after the first man-sized pothole), 25 hefty speakers that wouldn’t look out of place at a Steppenwolf concert and a head-shattering air horn powerful enough to strip tooth enamel – you have yourself one bad-ass Chicken Bus.

Guys Running the Show – Impressive
It's the guys running the show who impressed me, though. Not only the fearless driver, but his mate – the Chicken Bus Jockey. With the tenacity of an Everest Double Glazing salesman and the physical prowess of a world class 400-meter runner fitted as standard, these chaps are a breed apart.

I remember one in particular who had a dangerous habit of squeezing his way down the bus to collect fares. He would then exit the back of the bus when it slowed to an easy rumble, sprint back around as it began to gain pace, then hurl himself back in through the open door at the front. A routine repeated at least twice hourly. Clearly, this must have proved easier than battling back through a packed bus.

On one occasion, however, the driver sped off a little too early, leaving his amigo behind in a swirling cloud of dust and black fumes. Looking backward through small gaps in the sea of armpits and crotches, I could see this maniac, in full sprint with arms flailing, hopelessly trying to close the ever growing distance between him and the bus. The look of sheer desperation on his face reminded me of that scene at the end of the Roger Moore movie, The Wild Geese, where Richard Harris, while being chased by a lot of rather angry natives, tried in vain to catch up with the plane as it accelerated along the runway. In our case, and in a different and altogether less gory ending, passenger intervention saved the day. One chap eventually piped up to signal the loss, forcing Stan Laurel to reluctantly hit the brakes and pick up a wheezing and somewhat weary, Señor Hardy.

Guaranteed Entertainment
A Chicken Bus journey will almost guarantee entertainment in some form or another, anxiety and exhilaration in equal measure. Forget Alton Towers and Disneyland for cheap thrills, these machines offer greater kicks for even less. After surviving a five-hour trip hosting numerous up close and personals with oncoming traffic, you’ll believe that Jesus must really love you too.

You can read more Notes from the Road at Ubertramp.com.


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